FARNBOROUGH, England — With hundreds of satellites projected to launch from future UK spaceports and elsewhere in Europe in the coming years, an industry race is underway to develop space robots that will fix and maintain constellations in orbit.
Maxar Technologies has made inroads in satellite servicing with Pentagon and NASA contracts in recent years. It now also wants to become a player in the logistics support of commercial satellites in the burgeoning European market.
The company announced on Wednesday that its recently acquired Neptec robotic technology company was selected to supply sensors for the “Space Drone,” a servicing vehicle developed by Effective Space, based in the UK.
The Space Drone will use Neptec’s light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors and infrared cameras to approach and dock with orbiting satellites in geostationary earth orbit. Effective Space said it plans to launch two vehicles into orbit in 2020 as part of a $100 million contract with an undisclosed regional satellite operator. Maxar’s MDA division will work on the project from its recently expanded UK operation.
Lidar and infrared sensors will be used to generate a 3D picture of the target spacecraft. After rendezvous, the Space Drone docks with the host satellite and functions as an external “jetpack,” providing attitude and orbit control for the combined vehicle, so the satellite can continue to operate.
Neptec developed the sensors with funding from the UK Space Agency. The space lidar, originally designed for a lunar lander, will be used for rendezvous and docking in orbit, and for the de-orbiting of space debris. Lidar relies on reflected pulses of light from a laser to build a 3D map of a target.
Maxar this week also announced a $1.3 million deal with the UK Space Agency to develop space robotics technology in the United Kingdom. This puts MDA in a position to lead a European consortium to bid on the first phase of the European Space Agency’s space servicing vehicle robotics program.
“Space robotics are a key enabler for the new space economy, powering applications such as servicing, repairing, refueling and de-orbiting of satellites and building large structures in space,” Maxar said in a news release.
These emerging opportunities in the UK and Europe explain why Maxar moved to acquire the Neptec Design Group for $32 million. Neptec’s workforce of about 100 employees is based in Ottawa, Canada, and Harwell, United Kingdom.
At the Farnborough Airshow, Effective Space UK managing director Daniel Campbell briefed potential customers and journalists on the features of the Space Drone. At about 400kg, it’s about the size of a washing machine,
Campbell said in-orbit servicing, like launch, can help drive economic growth for the United Kingdom.
The company is positioning the Space Drone to compete against the likes of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle for satellite servicing work, debris removal, in-space explorations, mining and manufacturing in space. Initially it will focus on life-extension services of aging GEO satellites, which is considered the most lucrative portion of the market. The Space Drone will be adapted at a later time to support constellations in middle and low earth orbits.
Effective Space was founded in 2013 by Arie Halsband, general manager of the space division of Israel Aerospace Industries. The company decided to become permanently based in the United Kingdom for its favorable business climate and policies aimed at boosting the space economy.